Baptism of Our Lord
I am currently working on the scenery for my model railroad. It’s exciting as the layout begins to come alive – as it goes from plywood to looking like the real world. I am working on main section where Matthew and I spend most of our time – the steel mill and the railroad yard that serves it. When I get this portion done and the railroad is fully operational again, we’ll have another edition of “Cookies and Trains” to invite the congregation over so that you can see what your pastor has been up to in the basement.
As I worked, I did run into one frustrating situation that slowed down progress. The drain from the kitchen sink is right above the steel mill. It was apparent that there was a small leak in the piping that came down into the basement, and this was causing a slow drip onto the tile of the drop ceiling. First it stained the tile, and then it actually made flakes of the tile fall on the layout. Obviously this needed to be fixed, and after my initial attempts failed, John Toler came to the rescue and helped his pastor out. All is now fixed, but I was frustrated by the delay that it caused.
I was frustrated that is, until I heard about the experience of another model railroader. A good family friend in Bloomington, IN is an excellent modeler. His model railroad is also in the basement of his house. Recently a sewer line in his basement that goes over the model railroad broke and dropped its contents onto the railroad. I won’t go into any of the details – you can imagine how awful the problem was. After all, there is water, and then there is water that is so vile and filthy that you never want to deal with it.
I begin by speaking about water, because today is the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord. We are now in the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is based on a Greek word that means “to appear.” During the season of Christmas we celebrated that fact that the Son of God became flesh and entered into our world as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. Now during Epiphany we see how Christ’s saving glory began to appear in the world – how it began to be revealed.
The Baptism of Our Lord is truly the beginning of Jesus’ saving ministry for us. Matthew has already told us in this chapter, “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” John called upon all people to repent because the kingdom of heaven – the end time reign of God was about to arrive.
As we have mentioned recently, the distinctive feature of John’s ministry was the fact that he baptized other people. Matthew tells us that people came from all around to be baptized by John as they confessed their sins. By submitting to John’s baptism, people were confessing their sinfulness as in faith they prepared for the arrival of God’s reign that John proclaimed.
John announced that he was preparing the way for another – for One far more powerful than he. This One would bring God’s end time judgment. He declared: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
With this background in mind, we can understand John’s shock when Jesus showed up at the Jordan River to be baptized by John. John wanted to prevent it, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” After all, this was a baptism of repentance – a baptism people received confessing their sins as they looked in faith for the coming One. Why would Jesus, the coming One, ask to receive this baptism?
However Jesus replied: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Our Lord said that this baptism was necessary to fulfill all righteousness. It was a necessary part of God’s saving action put all things right. God had given John and Jesus each a role to play in this. John was to do the baptizing. Jesus was to be baptized.
So John consented and baptized Jesus. Matthew tells us, “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’”
The heavens were opened in a moment of divine revelation, and the Spirit of God descended like a dove on Jesus. And then the voice of God the Father was heard saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” This moment was a fulfillment of what God had said in the prophet Isaiah. There in the first verse of chapter forty two God had said, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”
At his baptism, Jesus is identified as the Servant of the Lord. Anointed by the Spirit he takes on the role of the Servant described in Isaiah. And in this recognition things that were puzzling to John the Baptist, begin to make perfect sense. The Servant of the Lord in Isaiah, is also the suffering Servant. He is the one of whom the prophet says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned--every one--to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” He is the One about whom the prophet declares: “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.”
The Son of God, Jesus Christ, has no sins. However, you do. You get angry with your spouse, sibling or coworker. You lust after a body that is not your spouse. You covet what others have. You seek to get payback against those who have harmed you.
At his baptism, Jesus went to the water of the Jordan to take your sins upon himself. The Jordan is muddy – with good reason Naaman could not understand why the prophet Elisha told him to wash in it. But for Jesus, this is not what mattered. The Jordan was for him filthy like the water of a sewer line because he entered that water to take all of our sins upon himself. He the sinless Son of God took on the role of the Servant who would bear the sins of all.
The baptism of Jesus was the beginning of his ministry. From the moment of his baptism, Jesus’ ministry was directed towards one goal. It was directed towards the cross where he would suffer and die as the Servant of the Lord who takes way our sin.
This was his goal. This was his purpose. And he did so knowing that by dying he would bring the righteousness of God – God’s saving action that puts all things right. He would receive the judgment of God against our sins. He would offer himself as the ransom for many. He would be the suffering Servant.
But Jesus knew that God’s righteousness did not end in death. As Jesus said in the third of his passion predictions in Matthew’s Gospel, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” As he predicted, Jesus Christ passed through the death of the cross to give us forgiveness. But on the third day God raised him from the dead, and so now he is the source of life that overcomes death. He is the risen One who will raise us up on the Last Day.
Jesus’ baptism began his mission as the Servant of the Lord to our bear ours sins on the cross and then rise from the dead. In order to share the saving benefits of his ministry, Christ instituted Holy Baptism. When you were baptized, the forgiveness Christ won was applied to you. You received one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Your sins were washed away.
But while your baptism was a one time event, its significance for you is not. Instead, it always stands ready to be grasped in faith, trusting in God’s promise that through the water and the Word of baptism forgiveness is yours. How do you know you are forgiven? You’ve been baptized! Your baptism is ready twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, to give you the comfort of God’s forgiveness.
At Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit descended upon our Lord like a dove, and God the Father said, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” In baptism you were born again of water and the Spirit. The Spirit’s saving work came to you as he made you a child of God because of Jesus. God has given you his Spirit through baptism so that you can call upon him as Father. St. Paul told the Galatians, “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”
In baptism you have received the forgiveness of sins because of Jesus. Through baptism you received the Holy Spirit. And because God has done this for you in baptism, because of Jesus he now looks at you and says: “This is my beloved son, this is my beloved daughter with whom I am well pleased.” That is true now. It will be true on the day of your death. It will be true on the Last Day.
Jesus entered into the water of his baptism in order to take on the role of the Servant of the Lord. He was baptized in order to serve us as the suffering Servant on the cross. Living in Christ, our baptism now has similar meaning for us. Jesus told the disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
You are baptized. You are forgiven because of Christ and have received the Holy Spirit. And so now the Spirit leads you to serve others as Christ has served you. He prompts you to forgive others as Christ has forgiven you. He moves you to sacrifice for others as Christ sacrificed himself for you.
Your baptism is the source of the Spirit’s continuing work in your life. And as the Spirit leads, prompts and moves us, we join our own efforts and intention as the new creation that the Spirit has made us in Christ Jesus. We embrace the life of love that God has given us in Christ, even when it means inconvenience for us.
We live in this way because Jesus entered into the water of the Jordan to be baptized by John. He took on the role of the Servant of the Lord – the suffering Servant. He took the filth of our sins upon himself in order to die on the cross and win forgiveness for us. And as the risen Lord he has now baptized us. He has washed away our sins. He has given us his Spirit so that we can live as forgiven people who forgive and serve others because of Jesus Christ.